WASHINGTON – President Bush heaped praise Friday on the president of Kazakhstan, a Central Asian country important to the United States as an oil supplier and war-on-terror ally but which has a political system that stifles dissent.
U.S. concerns over President Nursultan Nazarbayev's heavy-handed rule did not come up when the two leaders appeared before reporters after their nearly hourlong Oval Office meeting. Instead, the two were all compliments in brief comments that came before Bush hosted a private luncheon for Nazarbayev in the White House residence.
Bush thanked Nazarbayev for supporting the U.S.-led war in Iraq, for his willingness to fight terrorists and to help neighboring Afghanistan become a stable democracy, and for his "commitment to institutions that will enable liberty to flourish." Bush offered support for Kazakhstan's desire to join the World Trade Organization.
"I have watched very carefully the development of this important country from one that was in the Soviet sphere to one that now is a free nation," Bush said as the two sat side by side. "I appreciate your leadership, Mr. President."
White House officials had said beforehand they could not gauge how big a part of the agenda Nazarbayev's democratic record would be Bush's private meeting with him, and there was no immediate comment on the content of their talks.
Nazarbayev expressed gratitude for U.S. support for Kazakhstan's independence from the Soviet Union 15 years ago.
"In economics, in energy partnership, in policy, in war on terror, we truly become close partners," he told reporters, speaking through a translator.
His highest concern appeared to be the turmoil in nearby Afghanistan, where the Taliban has regrouped, illegal drug cultivation is rising and the democratic government remains fragile.
"Nobody in Central Asia will feel safe and peace if we are surrounded by countries populated with terrorist people and if we be surrounded by countries where some people crave to put their hand on the nuclear weapons which Kazakhstan renounced in the past voluntarily," Nazarbayev said.
That renunciation, in which Nazarbayev decided to dismantle the atomic arsenal he inherited from the Soviet Union, earned him acclaim Thursday night at a dinner put on by the Kazakh Embassy and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, which seeks to reduce the global threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.
Nazarbayev said in his dinner speech that thousands of Kazakhs suffered from the radiological fallout from Soviet nuclear testing in his land that lasted more than 50 years. The testing took place in populated areas, he said. When an explosion occurred, he said, "people were told it was an earthquake."
He challenged the United States and other nuclear powers to follow his example and make their countries nuclear-free.
Kazakhstan, a vast country north of Afghanistan and Iran that is nearly the size of Western Europe, is expected to pump 3.5 million barrels of oil a day in the coming decade. It is also a very friendly country for the United States in a part of the world where pro-American sentiment is not widespread.
But it is also known internationally for a political system in which dissent is stifled.
Nazarbayev has been his country's only leader since it achieved independence in December 1991 and has brought stability and prosperity. Like those of most other Central Asian nations, however, Kazakhstan's record on democracy and protecting human rights is regarded as poor.
Nazarbayev was re-elected with 91 percent of the vote in December balloting that international observers called flawed. The 2004 parliamentary vote produced a legislature without a single opposition lawmaker.
The New York-based Freedom House and other groups that support democracy and protection of human rights had called on Bush to make the issue a priority in their meeting.